Last Updated: March 26th, 2019

Excerpt from Paradise in Plain Sight: Lessons from a Zen Garden, in which Karen Maezen Miller uses the metaphor of gardening to teach us about finding peace and contentment within our own lives. 

We had exhausted our options by the time the agent drove us down one last street and surprised us by pulling over.

“Let me show you this one just for historical interest. It’s empty, and you might not get a chance to see it again.”

Whatever it was, I could hardly tell. The view from the curb was curtained by a stand of giant bamboo behind a rusted iron fence. Inside the fence was a worn-out gate. Inside the gate was a weathered bungalow, faded to a forgettable shade of dust.

“I know it doesn’t fit your parameters.”

I wondered what she thought our parameters were. Fear? Distrust? Ambivalence? We had asked to see rental houses with short-lease terms, uncertain by this stage where or how we would end up. On the one hand, all bets were off. On the other, anything was possible.

Even from the street I could tell that this wasn’t the rose-covered cottage I’d envisioned for my honeymoon haven. We were deep into LA’s featureless sprawl, near where my husband worked, in a suburban hamlet known for its sooty skies and desert temperatures. I didn’t know that there was something else my husband had told our agent to put on the wish list. Doubtful that his type A wife could survive having this much nothing on her hands, he had told the realtor that I might like a little garden.

The only thing I’d ever grown was mould on bread.

There was no little garden in sight.

And then she said something that shot me straight out of the backseat.

She said, “The whole thing was built for Zen.”

Gate: What’s holding you back

In point of fact, the place was not built for Zen. It was built for vanity, the architect of most man-made things. But everything can be used for Zen once you get going.

The practice of Zen began nearly three thousand years ago when a man sat down under a tree in India and experienced enlightenment. His demeanor afterward seemed so uplifted that his friends called him Buddha, which means “awake.” His teaching became a guiding light for wayfarers, who one by one and step-by-step carried it across the ground of many continents and centuries. People who practice Zen are more skeptical than some devotees. They want to prove the truth for themselves, and so they do what Buddha did. They sit down for long stretches. And then they get up and keep going.

Zen had already saved my life once. I had stumbled onto meditation during a dark period a few years earlier. The deep silence and discipline of the practice helped me get back on my feet. Without depending on special scriptures or doctrine, Zen meditation points directly to the truth of the human mind, which does not, by the way, mean the space inside your head. It means the universe beneath your feet.

So let’s wake up and see where we are standing.

Just inside the fence was an oddly placed gate that wasn’t really a gate. It was a wooden portal with swinging doors and a shingled roof. The frame was gnawed nearly hollow and slapped with peeling paint. It leaned to one side; the doors dangled, screws loose. It was old, that much you could tell, wobbly and cobwebbed, but as an obstruction, it seemed almost solid. Coming up to it, I stopped dead.

Where in the world am I going? 

The agent was trying to tell us where we were going—onto old ground, what was once part of a larger estate, with a history and a bit of mystery. The gate had stood as the entry to a pristine garden, a side of the property we hadn’t yet seen.

One hundred years earlier, a single woman of means, heiress to a timber fortune, had built a stately villa on this sunny hill. On the slope below, she planted three magnificent gardens as evidence of her worldliness—a Mediterranean garden with fountains, an English garden with roses, and a Japanese garden with rocks and ponds. This was the entrance to the Japanese one, the sole remaining garden, a relic of her once-charmed life.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Japanese gardens cropped up in quite a few unusual spots—in public parks and exposition grounds, on private estates, and, yes, even in some backyards. Since Japan had opened trade with the West in the mid-1800s, its culture had become precious, its art and aesthetics prized by the super-rich.

The woman who had commissioned the garden was simply doing what the wealthy do. She had fashioned a splendid fantasyland, but it did what everything does: it fell apart. When her investments failed, she parcelled off her property and ended her days in a modest rental on the cheap side of the street.

Standing at the weathered gate, all we saw were the spiderwebs and the termite holes, and we were very afraid.

Fear is a barrier

Fear is what holds you back from everything.

There’s some lore about the gates outside Zen monasteries in the old days. Any seeker was refused at the gate until his intentions were clear. This might take several days or a week, each day the pilgrim making entreaties and the gatekeeper holding him back. What was going on there? Was this a way to screen out troublemakers and half-wits? No, there are plenty of those inside monasteries! Was it simply a show of rudeness? On the contrary, it was extreme kindness. Of elitism? Hardly. Anybody can enter. To pass the barrier, you have to drop your ambivalence and cynicism. Your clever self-deceptions, excuses and ulterior motives. You have to be ready, even desperate, before you propel yourself beyond your own fear.

Then, of course, it’s easy, because the gate isn’t really a gate. Fear is a false barrier. It’s nothing but a gaping hole you step through. On the other side, the teacher is waiting.

Four years earlier, I’d entered a different gate and met a great teacher. He had died, but while I stood at this threshold, he was not far from my mind. He was never far from my mind.

Taizan Maezumi Roshi was the product of an archaic system of Zen Buddhist patriarchy in Japan, where temples operated as family enterprises. One of seven brothers raised at his father’s temple in Otawara, Japan, he was ordained as a priest at age eleven and studied literature and philosophy at the university. After that, he did two things uncommon for both his time and our own: he took his mother’s last name, Maezumi, and he took the practice of Zen Buddhism seriously.

He’d lost respect for blind authority; he wanted to part with dead customs. After his institutional training, he sought instruction from radical masters, testing firsthand the truth of a timeless teaching. In 1956, at age twenty-five, he sailed for America, intending to spread the practice of Zen in a country hostile to both his nation and his faith. He was posted as a priest at a small temple in Los Angeles that served a diminishing and demoralized population of Japanese-Americans.

His reputation grew. He attracted students from all over the world. He was revered by some, dismissed by others, and misunderstood by most. He was still there, in a dinky house in a dumpy part of town, on September 23, 1993, when I knocked on the door, afraid to say how afraid I was.

“I’m lost,” I said, in so many words.

As if anyone got there any other way.

At this fragile point in my life I was between addresses, between careers, between marriages, between youth and the brittle aftermath of youth, beyond shame, without better judgment, and with nowhere else to go. But I’m not here to tell that story again.

Meditation hall - Lessons from Zen garden

He invited me to sit down, the very thing I feared most of all. It hardly makes sense that sitting still and quiet for eight hours a day in a meditation hall teaches you to stand up and put one foot in front of the other, but that’s what Zen practice does. It is possible to traverse a great distance while your mind stands absolutely still. To alter your life entirely while doing next to nothing.

“Your life is your practice,” he said to me, and it was true. My life had never moved farther or faster than it did after he’d taught me to sit down and let it happen. Now here I was in front of another gate, the cusp of a universe without fear. We all stand on a spot like this, every moment of our lives, facing the only universe we will ever know, and most of the time we turn back towards familiar haunts—the scary stories inside our heads. That’s how we turn the gates of heaven into our own eternal damnation.

Is it even possible to live in a universe without fear?

I wish more people would ask.

Anxiety disorders are the number one diagnosis of the mental health industry. Each year, about 40 million American adults seek treatment for debilitating fear and dread. Now children are swelling their ranks. In one recent year, 85 million prescriptions were filled for the leading anti-anxiety drugs. Antidepressant use has quadrupled over the last twenty years. About one in ten people suffer from chronic sleeplessness. Deaths from prescription painkillers are epidemic and higher than those from illegal narcotics. There are 140 million people in the world with alcoholism. In America, heavy drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death. These numbers may not be completely accurate, but they are entirely true. If they don’t apply to you, then they apply to people you know and love, people you live with or used to live with, people barely alive or dead too soon.

We live stupefied by our own deep terror, our unmet fears. Out of fear, we crush our own spirits, break our own hearts and—if we don’t stop—rot our own flesh.

How do we end up like this? I don’t know why we reach for noxious cocktails to drown our fear and pain, but we all do, and they don’t work. Every time we turn away from what is right in front of us we are headed in the wrong direction. So don’t turn away.

It’s not easy. There are no shortcuts or detours. No one can tell you how to fast forward your bliss. If they do, they’re just making it up. I found out for myself that none of the secret formulas work. That’s why I won’t tell you how to fix a relationship, guarantee your happiness, or realize your passion. I can’t repair your past or re-engineer your future. I don’t know the alchemy that turns fiction into fact or pain into pleasure. There is no sure thing. I can only ask this: What are you ignoring? What are you resisting? What part of your life have you locked out and sealed shut? And I am not talking about something invisible and unspeakable. Just take a look at what is right in front of you—the obvious and unavoidable—and step foot there. All that is ever required of us is that we lift one foot and place it in front of the other.

I didn’t learn everything from that old teacher, but he taught me how to keep going, so I’ll share that much with you.

When you come to the gate, keep going. Keep going straight on.

Watch the video trailer for Paradise in Plain Sight here: 

Karen Maezen Miller is the author of Hand Wash Cold, Momma Zen, and most recently, Paradise in Plain Sight. She’s also a Zen Buddhist priest, meditation teacher, wife, and mother. Visit her online at from Paradise in Plain Sight © 2014 by Karen Maezen Miller. Printed with permission of New World Library, Novato, CA.
image 2: gihin (Creative Commons BY)